Thursday, September 29, 2016

Ruminations 65: Good Breeding--The Racialization of Dogs and the Discourse of Differentiation

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

Human organization is no stranger to the mania for classification, and the construction of hierarchy and social management on the basis of those classifications.  Every society on Earth and at all times have sorted itself out this way for a long time.  And each society approaches the legitimization of these classifications--and the organizational and regulatory consequences of the society created--through a number of devices.  Human have invoked powers beyond the individual or society, usually divine forces of some sort or other, that in some way manifests the requirements for classification and the consequences of these impositions.  Theocracy provides a quite efficient means of creating those formulas necessary for segregating people and establishing a social order based on those characteristics that are the markers of difference. Societies sometimes invoke themselves--democratic social orders, from those of the West to Marxist Leninist regimes, and form monarchies to oligarchies--each in their own way ground their segregation on themselves (the will of the people exercised directly, or through their customs and traditions, or exercised through a monarch or by a vanguard). Both theocracy and democratic orders will on occasion rely on science--however that is understood, to buttress whatever framework system of classification that are imposed.  These are meant to extract essential characteristics (the domain of the social sciences), behavioral traits and predilections (the realm of genetics and perhaps psychology), social rules for engagement (customs and traditions and their preservation), and trait development (the domain of the "practical sciences" of husbandry)

This post considers the way that one can observe the extraordinary and unconscious strength of the propensity of human societies to build classification systems on constructed difference.  More specifically, it considers the way that the old rhetoric and "sciences" of race have been deployed unconsciously in recent efforts to ban "breeds" on dogs from particular areas. The most interesting aspects of these breed banning movement may be the way that it serves to reinforce and reapply with extraordinary strength the old mechanisms that once supported race slavery and segregation.  The ease with which our societies racialize dogs suggests the strength and depth of societal willingness--everyone, not just those at the top of particular hierarchies founded on race--to keep racial classification alive and to use its structures in ordering societal spaces (e.g., here). The dog, in this case, might well serve as a reminder of the power of racialization as a fundamental basis of human society and perhaps a litmus test of social claims to have moved beyond race in the classifications and ordering of social systems. 


In contemporary society, especially (but not exclusively) in the West and those places where it once exerted colonial authority, the focus has for sometime been on race (religion remains a more problematic, that is to say a more potentially legitimate form of segregation/differentiation in those societies). These societies have used virtually every possible form of knowledge production, those grounded on faith as well as on reason, to construct elaborate schemes for the justification and elaboration of racialized classifications and the construction of social organization on that basis.  Racialization has been understood as divinely ordained, as a natural reflection of genetic differences with physical manifestation, as a necessary marker of labor classification, and as a marker of "breeding".  And indeed, in its guise as "breeding," the racialization of difference and its service as a linchpin of human society--even those that do not embrace notions of slavery as an economic good or religious necessity--suggests the way in which the racial is basic to human conception of reality, that is the way that humans are taught to identify and distinguish among otherwise similar objects/individuals.   

Indeed, consider the richness of the word/concept breeding as an object of social self understanding.  At a basic level it suggests nothing more than the mating and production of offspring by humans and animals to perpetuate themselves that way.  From a semiotic perspective, breeding is itself with no meaning but itself for itself with one unconscious drive/purpose.  But that initial and simple meaning covers another, one that is produced when breeding becomes a sign--that is, when it acquires a consciousness of itself and its purpose.  So conscious breeding suggests control over itself--by and for itself or by others.  The control of the mating and reproduction of animals, including human animals, serves as a foundation for virtually every social order. It is basic to religion, social and political ordering as a means of controlling the community and of keeping itself distinct).  It requires little deep thought to recall the prohibitions against marriage across religious communities (as a religious taboo), the consequences of marriage across ethno-national lines (it was not long ago that even marriages between European ethno-national communities in the United States was viewed within immigrant communities as scandalous), and, of course, across racial lines (though it must be remembered that the differences between race and ethnicity is porous and ambiguous).  

The notion of control as inherent in the conception of breeding also serves as the basis of the dominion of humans over flora and fauna. In both cases, breeding assumes not a descriptive but a managerial meaning--it melds act with purpose, and it attaches power relations to purpose. This combination of notions of breeding, of course, produced the worst (from a contemporary normative-social perspective) of the excesses of dominion by human communities against others distinguished along race lines.  One immediately thinks about the breeding of slaves imported from Africa.  But one might also consider the use of breeding rules that had significant effect on social structures ion continental Europe--the blood purity laws in Spain, directed against people with Jewish "blood."

But "breeding" can also be understood in a third sense--in those actively learned behaviors that serve to distinguish sub groups within otherwise differentiated human communities.  The ideal of "good breeding" with analogues all over the world and its major cultures, testifies to it power.  It represents the abstraction of the notion of purposeful breeding--in part.  One speaks of people of good breeding to suggest the attainment of those markers of social behaviors that are meant to distinguish one group from others.  And it is especially important in marking vertical power relations based on behavior within groups. To be well bred was to mark oneself as eligible for membership within the subgroup characterized by those behavior standards.  
In Britain, breeding is everything. You do not rise to your station, you are born into it. As Ladies of London star Caroline Stanbury explains, "Britain is one of the toughest societies in the world to crack, for both nobles and newcomers alike. In other countries you can buy your way into society. England isn't like that. You can buy your seat at the table but it doesn't mean you are going to be accepted into it." (e.g., The Unwritten Rules of London High Society)
Yet good breeding alone was rarely sufficient even within groups.  The ancient antagonisms between aristocracies of the robe and of the sword in pre-Revolutionary France (e.g., here), and the divisions between "old" and "new" money in Guided Age New York suggest the relation of breeding to social structures, and its contingency within social organizations.
At the New York Academy of Music, an exclusive venue for opera from 1854, 18 private boxes were monopolised by an old elite of Roosevelts, Stuyvesants and others. Most arrivistes reluctantly put up with this arrangement. But William Vanderbilt, a rail-and-shipping magnate's son, refused to settle for a seat in the stalls: he bid $30,000 for a box—and was rebuffed.

In riposte, he and other parvenus, including Goulds, Whitneys, Rockefellers and Morgans, contributed $10,000 each to incorporate a new opera boasting 122 private boxes, the Metropolitan Opera House Company. Unable to compete, the Academy of Music closed in 1885: “I cannot fight Wall Street,” lamented its owner. Old money had no choice but to join the Met, and differences were quickly forgotten as the two foes found common cause in keeping out the next generation of newcomers. (That Other Guilded Age)
 But this third and most abstract notion of breeding was itself contingent on membership in the larger breeding groups. Thus, for example, good breeding distinguished members within power groups in the African-American community in the United States as it produced those same distinctions among English society. Yet good breeding among members of the Jewish or African American communities might not produce connection with other well bred individuals because the major breeding characteristics /race/religion( made it impossible to use mere mimicry as a means to access.  There is a long history in the United States and other places of the resulting tension--with modern reverberations from "acting white" to "blending in" within societal structures for which such mimicry only reproduced the hierarchies of status within but not among groups bred to different groups. 

Breeding, then, served as a portal to a fairly rich and complex set of understandings about social organization grounded in a basic and unalterable notion of animal husbandry and its social effects. Breeding was the word one used to interpret social organization and to affirm its basic in the reproduction of characteristics that might have purpose--biological, and abstract.  Even as Western society has abandoned its second meaning--the control of reproduction for some higher purpose--it has not abandoned its abstract meanings, or the underlying societal structures that are dependent on it.  Breeding remains a sign of status, an affirmation of allegiance, an embrace of community that has not entirely lost its connection to its biological connections. But our discussions of breeding have altogether suppressed discussion of that connection even as it continues its underground existence.

But breed is also a noun.  One not only has good breeding, one is not only bred, but one is also a member of a breed. That is a stock of people having a distinctive appearance and essentialized character /personality traits. Appearance remains an important social marker--and by appearance one here considers not just physical appearance but also the markers of that appearance in abstract space. Every breed has a name (though Western societies resist speaking in these terms) with definitive societal consequences (e.g., Employers' Replies to Racial Names; Is Your Name Holding You Back?) and breed characteristics (again though Western society now holds such form of discussion taboo for reasons of state) with societal and legal consequences (e.g., The Reality of Racial Profiling). Treating peoples as breeds appears natural in global social organization structures grounded in breeding.

Yet, it is only in the context of the human dominion over animals--one that is structured to mirror human dominion within itself--that the continuing power of breeding in all of its aspects, as a racialized methodology for imposing order, can be seen clearly.  It is in this context that most political taboos disappear and that the basic social approach to the ordering of individuals within species becomes quite clear.  It is to the language and perceptions about animal "breeds", to their race, that one might get a better sense of the underground realities of meaning in human discourse over race now subsumed within  more veiled language markers. 

Consider the Pit Bull Terrier. It is a dog that breed itself "true". Perhaps.  It is a breed that may be bred to ensure the perpetuation of specific characteristics. Those characteristics predominate over those that generally are attributed to the species "dog" and that mark the "breed" from others. Science is deployed to ensure the soundness of this view.  In dog a number of races have been created, to certain ends, and the good breeding of these "stocks" of animals then produce economic, social, and political consequences. Yet the Pit Bull Terrier is a dog.  And like other dogs can breed with any available species.  To keep the "purity" of the breed it is necessary to limit its sexual activity.  But cross breeding may perpetuate its characteristics--appearance and character/personality--onto its offspring.  In the worst case it may infuse other dogs with those character traits that may either be desirable or undesirable from the perspective of those with the power to control "breeding."

The Pit Bull Terrier was once considered to be an ordinary dog--that is one sharing a set of characteristics that did not pose a danger to the human population among which it lived (e.g., here).  But recent changes in human behaviors have also caused changes in the interaction between these animals and the human communities in which they might be found. They are now considered "vicious", "dangerous" "uncontrollable" and "unpredictable". Society ascribes a breed characteristic to Pitt Bulls--random violence against humans. Conversely, society assumes that dog violence against humans must presumptively involve either Pit Bulls or dogs infused with their breed characteristics.
In June, a Quebec man named Farid Benzenati arrived at his house in Montreal’s east end to see a dog outside, wrestling with a large object. The dog was new to the Pointe-Aux-Trembles neighborhood, and Benzenati at first dismissed the tussle in the neighbor’s backyard as playful. But then he saw human hair.

“It was hard to see, but I knew it was a woman’s body,” Benzenati told CBC. “I saw blood, and the dog was still attacking her.”

Police found Benzenati’s neighbor, 55-year-old Christiane Vadnais, mauled to death. Responders pronounced Vadnais dead at the scene. Officers shot and killed the animal, which they described as a pit bull.

Vadnais’s family demanded a response. Serge Vadnais, her brother, asked the Quebec government to ban dangerous dog breeds: “As soon as possible, not in two years, now,” he said in a June 11 interview with CBC. Since 2005, the nearby province of Ontario had banned pit bulls, and Quebec was also considering similar legislation. (A dog fatally mauled a Canadian woman 3 months ago. Now, Montreal has banned pit bulls.)

Science is deployed to advance legal consequences to racial difference ("Groups like Ban Pit Bulls and Dogs Bite endorse such bans by arguing pit bull breeds are genetically more dangerous than other dogs." Ibid).  And science has been deployed against ("Both the American Bar Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association oppose breed-specific bans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommends against the legislation as well, citing too much uncertainty in dog-bite data to target a specific breed. The Obama administration echoed the CDC’s position in 2013." Ibid).  Politics makes the niceties of factual investigations secondary to the breed cause (in the case of the Montreal attacks it was disputed whether the dog involved was a Pitt Bull or a Boxer. (here)). Indeed, political gesture based on race based characteristics prevail even where there is no evidence that such social constructions of group characteristics are contestable and that such laws are ineffective (here).

Consider as well the management of statistics to engage in the management of breed. 
Pit bulls make up only 6% of the dog population, but they’re responsible for 68% of dog attacks and 52% of dog-related deaths since 1982, according to research compiled by Merritt Clifton, editor of Animals 24-7, an animal-news organization that focuses on humane work and animal-cruelty prevention.
. . . .
Clifton says he’s seen an unprecedented rise in dog maulings in recent years, as more pit bulls enter the shelter system. Between 1858 and 2000, there are only two recorded instances of shelter dogs killing humans. From 2000 to 2009, there were three fatal attacks involving shelter dogs (one pit bull, one breed similar to a pit bull, and one Doberman). But from 2010 to 2014, there have been 35 shelter dogs who fatally attacked humans. All but 11 were pit bulls. (The Problem With Pit Bulls).
But what makes this more interesting is the convergence of breed based assaults on Pitt Bulls and their connection with African Americans in the United States.  There appears to be a parallel in the discourse of Pitt Bull aggression, on the one hand, and dog fighting and drug dealing in connection with which race is also implicated.  This conflates race, breed, racial and breed characteristics in a subtle and unstated way, with the general population the victim of that double racialized conflation: "“If you need a marker in your head for when pit bulls got out of control, it’s 2007 with Michael Vick,” Lynn says. Vick’s high-profile trial for dogfighting and cruelty to animals roused a growing sympathy for pit bulls, which led more people to adopt them and bring them into their homes." (Ibid, quoting Colleen Lynn, president and founder of, a national dog-bite-victims group dedicated to reducing dog attacks).

And indeed, this subtext has not been lost on the general population.  Consider one letter to the editor in Baltimore Maryland in 2012:
Those who speak of innate pit bull violence are thus showing a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of all domesticated dogs, any of which can turn violent under the right (or in this case, wrong) circumstances. But it also shows something else. In Baltimore, like many other places, pit bulls are associated with dog fighting and black, urban violence. To say otherwise is dishonest, and the fact that pit bulls are singled out when bigger more powerful dogs like Rottweilers are not to me is clear evidences that some sort of bias is in play. Using the well documented notion of institutional racial bias in the legal system, this implicates the court's claim that pit bulls are "inherently violent." (You can't separate pit bull prejudice from racial prejudice)
And it has not been lost on the African American community in the United States.
In the wake of the disgusting Michael Vick dog fighting case, it was easy to think that black people, black men in particular, don't care much for man's best friend. The 53 pit bulls bred for fighting found on the NFL quarterback's Virginia property are facing euthanasia. But at least 17 others weren't that lucky. Their remains have already been found. Some were electrocuted or drowned with Vick's help because they didn't fight ferociously enough. Then sheriff's deputies found three dog carcasses and several malnourished pit bulls on rapper DMX's Arizona property. Ving Rhames had to defend himself, his English bulldog and three bull mastiffs against charges the dogs killed a housekeeper while Rhames was out of town. And then, Whoopi Goldberg, decided to publicize her arrival on The View by offering a cultural explanation for all of this. There is none. (Black Men and Dogs: Don't Believe Vick).
Yasmin Nair drew the connection between race, racial construction and the construction of the Pitt Bull in an August 2016 essay for Current Affairs (Racism and the American Pit Bull).  It appeared to some that to speak about Pitt Bulls was a means of speaking about their owners.  In both cases these connections were markers of connections that were engineered and cemented with just enough social science to make the connection plausible enough to legitimate political action.
The media vilification of pit bulls soon followed. Dickey suggests that the creation of the 24-hours news cycle, inaugurated by CNN in 1980, represented a turning point. The rise of cable television created a salacious interest in “ghetto” and “thug” stories, and the news networks loved to report on the viciousness of urban “animals” both canine and human. A July 1987 Sports Illustrated story about pit bulls featured a cover illustration of the dog snarling, open-mouthed, with fangs on full display. The title in large print and all caps: “BEWARE OF THIS DOG.” During this time, at the height of the Drug War, the media similarly stigmatized Latino and Black men. They were treated as toxic carriers of drug addiction and social dysfunction, much as rats and other animals have been cast as sources of disease. (Racism and the American Pit Bull).
Again, breeding melds act with purpose, and it attaches power relations to purpose (e.g., Bronwen Dickey, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon (noting race and cultural stereotype in the animal welfare rights and dog fighting context, 2016).  But in the case of pit fighting, one that also embraced class issues and inter-ethnic hierarchies (e.g., Heidi J. Nast, Pitt Bulls, Slavery and Whiteness, in Critical Animal Geographies (Kathryn Gillespie, Rosemary-Claire Collard, eds., 2015)  127).

The ease with which our societies racialize dogs suggests the strength and depth of societal willingness--everyone, not just those at the top of particular hierarchies founded on race--to keep racial classification alive and to invest societal discussions about dog breeds with cultural significance in the area of social differentiation (in matters of race and culturally significant speech, see, here). The dog becomes the sign that gives meaning for itself, and through that meaning making also masks meaning making for societal differentiation among individuals. This easy conflation ought to trouble.  It ought to remind social actors that breed continues to matter; that societies grounded in breeding and in good breeding build structures grounded in breed.  It is a reminder that social differentiation remains an important element of social organization.  But that this appears to be a general condition, one to which no human "breed" is immune. And it suggests that in speaking about our dogs--in seeking to breed them, manage them, make them better, draw conclusions about their inherent characteristics--society may well be talking about itself.

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